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Meet Mason O’Neal, Diagnosed at Birth with Mild Brain Injury

An Interview with his Parents, Christian and Julie O’Neal

Mason O’Neal, a 7-year-old student in the ACCESS Lower School 1 classroom, joined ACCESS in March 2011. His parents, Christian and Julie, recently described their son’s dramatic learning progress over the last several months:

“You can see his academic achievements and schoolwork translate into an activity such as playing Words with Friends. He couldn’t spell or read before he came to ACCESS, and now he plays Words with Friends” marveled Christian, executive director for alumni affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Mason, who is described by his parents, teacher and therapists as a loving and active boy, was born prematurely; his subsequent breathing problems at birth resulted in mild brain injury and a global developmental delay.

“At 18 months, he was not sitting or crawling. He was almost 2 before he started crawling or walking,” his mother, Julie, recalled.

Mason attempted unintelligible words but wasn’t talking at 2 and 3. He stuttered at 4 and was only using three or four words together at 5.

After attending a developmental preschool for three years where he received speech, physical and occupational therapy, Mason was enrolled in a typical educational setting to begin his elementary education. It became obvious to his parents that he was not thriving in this environment. Not only was he struggling academically, but also, Mason began displaying uncharacteristically negative behaviors. Christian and Julie decided to place Mason in a different school while waiting for admission to ACCESS Academy.

Reflecting on the decision to pull their son from a typical educational setting, Christian explained, “He was physically harming himself because of the stress. Here was lovable Mason, turned into a nightmare child, all in a matter of weeks. He was acting out of frustration.” For the first time, Mason was without the therapeutic intensity he had received during his preschool years and in a more challenging academic environment.

Upon admission to ACCESS last spring, Mason “couldn’t read any sounds, and his handwriting was illegible,” said Holly Lowe, his teacher. “Since March, he jumped from reading and writing single letters to full sentences. For example, he progressed from learning the sound ‘b’ to writing and reading things such as, ‘I see a dog.’”

Lowe said Mason is now able to move on to increasing his fluency and reading unfamiliar words (ex: learning words such as “flower” by sounding them out – /f/-/l/-/ow/-/er/).

Mason’s speech therapist, Lindy Vint, concurred: “When Mason first came to us, you could tell he wanted to communicate, but he struggled knowing how to initiate a conversation and his poor vocabulary made it difficult for the listener to know what he was communicating. For example, maybe he wanted to tell you about something that happened over the weekend, but he couldn’t because his vocabulary was so impaired that he couldn’t give you a good frame of reference. He couldn’t use past tense verbs to communicate that something happened in the past. He once told me, ‘I’m going to see airplanes fly,’ whereas what he intended to communicate was that he went to see an air show with his father over the previous weekend.”

Vint noted Mason’s improvements in vocabulary and speech and also noted his improvements in following directions.

“When [Mason] first came to ACCESS, he was not able to stay in his chair to complete tasks. He was very active and talked constantly. He had no boundaries, was not able to write and had limited organizational skills,” said Lowe. In addition to his academic achievements, “he has learned how to calm himself down or ask to take a walk. He knows and recognizes when he needs to be calm, and, really, that’s a skill everyone needs to learn.”

Christian and Julie portrayed a child who has flourished in a therapeutic educational setting under the guidance of a professional team of teachers and therapists focused on shared goals.

“Mason is not just a test score. I was just looking for someone to believe in Mason,” said Christian, recalling that when he was in Kindergarten and first grade, he couldn’t write and received extra help from his teacher, who worked with him after school.

“When I was in second and third grade, what Mason’s doing now, I couldn’t do. I didn’t have any skill set to phonetically figure out words, and he tries to figure out words all the time,” said Christian.

“I wish all schools had the same curriculum ACCESS has,” continued Christian, describing how Mason will sound out new words he sees as they drive around town. “If students can’t read, they certainly can’t do math. Mason’s not scared of math in a way that I was in school. The more he is exposed to the curriculum, the easier it is for him to do homework.

“He respects Holly, and he knows when he’s not performing up to par. More importantly, he knows right from wrong, he knows how to express himself, and he knows when he doesn’t do right, he’s still going to be loved,” Christian said.

Recalling a recent night of homework using cursive handwriting, Christian highlighted the change in his son:

Mason gets so excited when he writes a word. Doing homework is now enjoyable. He hated school, and now he’s my 5:30 a.m. riser: It’s time to go, we’re late!

To build on these successes, the ACCESS professionals who work with Mason are incorporating incremental therapeutic, social, self-regulation and self-help goals into his educational plan.

Although Mason has mastered many physical and occupational therapy goals, such as greatly improving his handwriting and other fine motor skills, he is still working on motor skills and sequencing activities. His occupational therapist, Tracey Shell, notes that his goals for the next few months include cutting shapes with more precision to improve fine motor precision skills and visual motor skills; tying his laces independently to improve self-care skills and independence; copying overlapping shapes to improve visual motor coordination; and completing three- to four-step activities without cues to improve sensory processing.

Lowe noted that refining Mason’s newfound calming methods is essential as he begins more challenging and potentially more frustrating academic work. To address this, she is listing assignments for Mason so he can not only see what’s next on his agenda but also get a sense of accomplishment as he crosses off completed tasks. She is also encouraging him and modeling behaviors for him as he learns how to engage appropriately with different peers.

As Julie observed, “Mason still struggles with appropriate touching. He gets so excited to go play with his friends, he’ll sort of slap them hard on the back in an enthusiastic, ‘Hey, let’s go play!’ manner. We’re working on personal boundaries and things like that.”

Mrs. Vint has implemented several social-based goals “with the aim of making Mason a more eloquent and relevant communicator. He needs to be able to communicate important information to someone who may not be a patient listener or a person familiar with disabilities.”

Even with these tasks to work on, Mason’s progress has already boosted his self-esteem and improved his social life. Christian recapped Mason’s recent, first-ever basketball tryouts, where he shot six out of six baskets from the left side of the court and ran sideways. Discussing it with Julie, Christian’s enthusiasm was clear: “Just following directions – when has Mason ever been able to do that?! He’s asking questions. He never used to ask questions; now he knows to ask ‘why’ and make answers resonant.”

Asked what advice he would give to other parents of children with special needs, Christian pointed out that everyone has some sort of difference and needs support to overcome challenges.

“Get out there and be an advocate for your child,” said Christian. “Don’t ever think your child can’t accomplish everything other children can do. Believe in them. You have to put them on the right road. You have to advocate for your child. You have to.”

“You just have to be patient and love them,” Julie added.

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